Cassie’s petition and the power of student voice


Teaching | Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cassie’s petition and the power of student voice

Cassie's petition and the power of student voice

My daughter, Cassie, is taking her learning in her own hands (or is trying to!). Her petition to her teacher shows examples of how student voice can be harnessed for great gains. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Conley)

My daughter, Cassie, is a second-grader.

She loves to read. She loves animals. She loves trying new things.

She’s apparently also a huge change agent in her classroom (or is trying to be).

Yesterday, Cassie was thinking about how things were going in her classroom and started brainstorming what would make learning more interesting for her and her classmates. Her ideas:

  • Have two hours to do whatever we want
  • Have a class pet
  • Let us read comic books for reading tests

She even included a bulleted list, something they’ve been learning about.

Then she took her ideas to her peers. She made a petition on handwriting practice paper and took it to recess. She got most of her class to sign the petition (including a staff member) and quietly left it on her teacher’s desk. 

Her teacher, knowing Cassie’s handwriting and her personality, figured out pretty quickly who the ringleader was for this little work of activism.

The beauty of this is that the teacher wasn’t upset about it. She didn’t see Cassie’s ambition as an act of usurping her authority. Plus, she’s looking into ways that she can fit their requests into her classroom activities.

There are several reasons why I love this story (even despite the personal connection and bias I have!):

  • The students are working with the teacher to craft their own education. Granted, not all of it is 100 percent academically focused (although the two hours to do whatever they want could be construed as 20 percent time / Genius Hour).
  • The teacher was flexible and understanding. Instead of getting frustrated with the kids, she’s looking to use their preferences to engage them in their learning.
  • The students were respectful about their requests. They didn’t complain or talk about what they didn’t like about their class (which, for Cassie, is nothing — she loves her class and her teacher). They kept it positive and presented it to the teacher on paper for her to deal with when she was ready.

Student voice is a powerful force. When we include our students’ ideas and opinions in education, they take ownership of their own learning.

And when they feel that their education reflects their own desires and interests, the result is so much greater than if activities are imposed from the top down.

Education has to stay relevant to our students’ lives. When students tell us what they want to learn and how the want to learn it, that’s a key they’re giving us to unlock their motivation. They’re letting us in to a very personal, special place.

We have to make the most of those moments. If we don’t, we may be shut out and disconnected.

But if we do, great things can happen.

Thanks, Mrs. Conley, for listening to Cassie. She appreciates it, too.

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  • Jennifer Tait says:

    Matt, thank you and Mrs. Conley for sharing Cassie’s petition story. You know they always say that little eyes are watching us and I think this is definitely evidenced in this story.

    Disconnection and disengagement were the focus of a part of our PD in our school last school year. I liked your statement that if we ignore or don’t make the most of these moments “we may be shut out and disconnected.” I believe that many of our students at the secondary level do not believe they have a voice in their education; therefore, they simply ride the wave and allow others, who they believe to be the experts, to tell them what they need to do and courses they need to take. Then when it comes to executing their learning in the classroom they have no connection or ownership. This year I am privileged to teach a semester course called Preparing for College and Careers. Last week I asked my students (as I do every semester) what they thought of the class, was it what they expected, what do “we” need to change, what were their expectations and are they being met or do we need to set new expectations, etc. I do preface the conversation that I have standards that I need to follow, and they are very aware of those standards, but how I present those standards can be changed.

    When I start the conversation, the students tend to sit and stare at me with blank looks that turn to “she is asking me for my opinion about ‘her’ class” looks. Then someone bravely makes a statement and then a few more will follow. After we are done, I give them the option to leave me a sticky note (signed or unsigned) on the “Exit Poster” on my door with their comments and suggestions. It amazed me this year how many chose to voice their opinions publicly in the class and then the ones that came to talk to me face to face after class. I want them to know that they have ownership and responsibility in this classroom over their learning.

    Another great thing about the PCC Class (and all of my classes) is that I get to share with them that they can and should have ownership over ALL of their learning while they are in our high school building and beyond. They should look for guidance but ultimately they have to own it!

    I have told them that it will not be Mrs. Tait who will be going out to work a minimum wage job and trying to support a family; if they have dreams and expectations for their learning they need to voice them and not let anyone get in their way to achieve them!

    • Matt Miller says:

      Jennifer — I think giving our students a voice in their education is so important. Your PCC class is a GREAT example of turning some control over to students. I think this scares a lot of educators to death, but it’s a great way to stay relevant AND to build rapport with students. It makes you vulnerable to them, asking them for their honest opinions about you as a teacher and your class. If you take their ideas and opinions and they see changes because of them, that builds a relationship that turns into motivation during class. Giving students control is HUGE. And it often doesn’t turn into them abusing that power to make mean comments or ask for ridiculous changes. I’ve found that students realize the power we give them when we ask them for direction or opinions and they respect it.

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